Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Beached whale revealed in 17th c. Dutch painting

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen seemed like an unassuming beach scene when conservator Shan Kuang first began to work on it. Painted in 1641 and donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 along with a group of other Dutch landscapes by patron Richard Kerrich, View of Scheveningen Sands was sent to the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation while the Dutch Golden Age gallery was closed for a year-long refurbishment. Its resin varnish coating had yellowed over time, so Kuang was tasked with removing it to freshen up the painting for the grand reopening of the gallery.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, before restorationKuang began to painstakingly clean the canvas. Her work soon revealed an incongruous lone figure of a man standing on the horizon. There was only sea underneath him and sky above, so it was unclear how he fit into the composition. More cleaning of the area next to him exposed a dark grey triangular shape, which led Kuang to speculate that the man might be in the rigging of a sailboat that had been overpainted. She could see that the ocean in that spot was more crudely painted than in the rest of the painting.

After much discussion with Hamilton Kerr conservation experts and Fitzwilliam curators, they decided the overpaint was not the work of van Anthonissen. Its thick impasto and inferior quality indicated a later alteration done in the 18th or early 19th century. By the time the painting was donated in 1873, nobody knew it had been overpainted. Removing it was still a risky prospect. It’s difficult to take away just the paint layer that was added without harming the original paint, and you never know what ugly surprises might be concealed by the overpaint.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, after restorationThey decided to take the plunge, and Kuang set about removing the thick overpaint with a scalpel and a few carefully chosen solvents. To ensure she didn’t damage the original, she viewed the work under the microscope. Under the paint she found not a ship, but a beached sperm whale.

The man who seemed to be standing on the horizon is, in fact, balanced on the whale’s back where Kuang suggests that he might even be measuring its length.The chosen focus of the painting resonates with a surge of public interest in whales: contemporary records show many instances of whale beaching on the coastline of the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. While the Anthonissen painting seeks to represent the whale in a realistic manner, some prints from the period portray whales as rampaging monsters of the deep and omens of disaster.

"Beached Sperm Whale at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601" by Jan SaenredamRealistic depictions of beached whales and viewing them as omens of disaster was not mutually exclusive. The Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century was experiencing the religious and political upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, a period that coincides with the heyday of the beached whale in Dutch art, literature and political writing. The appearance of a whale was seen as a portent of defeat in battle or a sign of God’s displeasure at the prospect of a truce between religious factions. A 1602 engraving by Jan Saenredam of a beached whale at Beverwijk has a long Latin note underneath detailing the exact measurements of the mammal (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw) while above the tableau is a frame of allegorical references to earthquakes, eclipses and the passage of time. There are also more anatomically correct details of the whale after decomposition gases caused it to explode and Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

By the time Anthonissen painted his beached whale landscape, the trend was losing steam. Negotiations between Spain and the Dutch Republic began in 1646, and a Treaty formalizing Dutch independence was signed in 1648. The prophetic vision of beached whales no longer bedeviled the stable, confident Republic. With the interest in the subject long faded, someone decided to hide the dead whale altogether, perhaps to make it more palatable to a wider market as an innocuous beach scene.

View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale is now on display in the reopened Dutch Golden Age gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

The British Museum’s consistently fascinating blog has an entry decoding the complex iconography of Anglo-Saxon art. If you’ve ever found yourself following the intricate interlacing lines and curves of an Anglo-Saxon design, trying to identify a highly stylized animal or face mask, then you’ve doubtless wished for a labeled map. British Museum curator Rosie Weetch and illustrator Craig Williams have made that wish come true.

They select three pieces from different periods to decode. The first is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch that was unearthed from the grave of a woman on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was cast in silver and gilded on the front surface, a technique influenced by southern Scandinavian metalwork. Created in the early 6th century A.D., the brooch is a beautiful example of Style I art, characterized by a jumble of interwoven figures art historians amusingly call “animal salad.”

Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch, early 6th c. A.D., and interpretive map

The next example is from a century later, the great gold buckle from the early 7th century Sutton Hoo ship burial. It’s a Style II piece, characterized by more fluid intertwined animal figures. There are 13 animals on the buckle surface: snakes and four-legged creatures on the plate and tongue shield, snakes biting themselves on the loop, two animals biting a smaller animal on the top of the buckle, and two bird heads on the shoulders of the buckle.

Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

Great buckle from Sutton Hoo and interpretive map

The last piece skips ahead to the 9th century Trewhiddle Style, named after the town in Cornwall where a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins and decorated artifacts were discovered in a tin mine in 1774. The style is distinguished by enlaced animals, birds and humans, leafy scrollwork and a particular emphasis on using silver rather than gold and brass. The Fuller Brooch features the classic Trewhiddle humans, animals and plants along the border, but the central iconography is unique.

At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Fuller Brooch and map of the five senses

The metaphoric significance of these figures, its best-in-class quality and the unique vision of the piece may suggest a connection to the court of King Alfred the Great, who was not only a successful military leader but also had a deep and abiding passion for learning and education. The long period of Viking raids had decimated centers of learning. Alfred made it a mission to reinvigorate Latin education and, for the first time, to advocate learning in the English vernacular. He put his money where his mouth was, personally translating four major works from Latin into Old English: Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms.

Chapter XXXIV of his translation of Boethius uses the senses as a metaphor for enlightenment and understanding:

But gold and silver stones and every kind of gem and all this present weal enlighten not at all the eyes of the mind nor at all whet their sharpness for beholding true happiness but they rather blind the eyes of the mind than sharpen them For all the things which please us here in this present life are earthly and are therefore fleeting But the wonderful Brightness which enlighteneth all things and ruleth all things willeth not that souls should perish but willeth to enlighten them If then any man can see the brightness of the heavenly light with the clear eyes of his mind then will he say that the brightness of the shining of the sun is darkness beside the eternal brightness of God.

Since the motif is unique, the work of the highest caliber and the dating consistent with Alfred the Great’s reign (which ended in 899 A.D.), it’s entirely possible that the Fuller Brooch was crafted by artisans at Alfred’s court, likely for someone of great wealth and rank.

Sadly the article stops at just these three pieces, only whetting my appetite for more mapping of Anglo-Saxon designs. Weetch and Williams should go through the entire collection of the British Museum and decode every artifact in this way. Then they should animate the creatures untangling themselves from each other and make it interactive so we can select to follow one line at a time. Make it so.

 

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The Morgan wants you to see Rembrandt’s etchings

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

The Morgan Library and Museum has an impressive collection of 489 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, the largest and finest in the United States. Pierpont Morgan himself started collecting Rembrandt’s etchings in 1900 when he bought the entire library of millionaire rare book and print collector Theodore Irwin which included 272 Rembrandt etchings. He added 112 more prints in 1906 when he acquired them from the legendary art collection of the late railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, sold by his son George of Biltmore fame.

A hundred and fourteen years after Pierpont bought the Irwin collection, the Morgan owns prints of almost all of the 300 known etchings by the Dutch master in multiple impressions thereof, including very rare ones. Some prints have been published in exhibition catalogs, but other than that, to view these innovative and influential works you had to go the Morgan in New York City where a few selections were on display. As of May 22nd, however, the entire Morgan collection of Rembrandt prints has been digitized and uploaded to the museum’s website.

Rembrandt began experimenting with etching in 1626 when he was a youth of 20 in Leiden. Other painters like Peter Paul Rubens made prints of his work, but he hired printmakers to do all the etching. Rembrandt did all the work himself, seeing it not as a means to mass-produce and publicize his pricier pieces, but as an exciting artistic medium in its own right with its own strengths. They were made by scratching lines on a resin-coated copper plate using a fine needle or the thicker drypoint needle and then dipping the plate in acid. The acid would “bite” the plate wherever the resin had been scratched away, leaving an impression. His early etchings had a relatively straight-forward drawing style. Over time he developed a more painterly style as he used dense thickets of lines and overlays of ink wiped off only in highlighted areas to create dramatic chiaroscuro.

His subjects ranged from self-portraits, often studies of posture and expression rather than formal representations, portraits of family (his mother, his first wife Saskia) and patrons, Biblical scenes, landscapes of the Dutch countryside and even some erotica which has no equivalent in his painted works. He also depicted people at the fringes of society, beggars, peasants, the elderly, the ill, sometimes mixing them up with images of himself in remarkable studies that look like sketches on a piece of paper rather than the work of painstaking engraving on a plate.

Rembrandt’s prints became hugely popular all over Europe, commanding impressive sums. An etching of Christ Preaching, a masterpiece of complex composition drawing from several different Biblical passages, is now known as the Hundred Guilder Print because an elderly patron paid him that much for an impression of it. His biographer Arnold Houbraken wrote that the demand for Rembrandt’s prints was so great people sought out impressions of different states with slight differences for the cachet of having the version of, for example, Woman Sitting Half Dressed Beside a Stove both with and without the stove key.

The largest number of Rembrandt prints that have ever been on display at once was at a British Museum exhibition in 2001 which featured about 100 of his etchings. Now you can enjoy almost three times that many in high resolution from the comfort of your computer. I recommend clicking on All Images and browsing through the whole collection. Click on zoom or on download to examine the details.

Speaking of which, I feel compelled to show love to the obscure but exceptionally innovative Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers. Rembrandt was a big fan of Segers’ work, collecting his paintings and prints, and even remaking one of the latter, acquiring the copper plate of Tobias and the Angel and remaking it into The Flight into Egypt. The Morgan has two impressions of The Flight (this one and this one) and it’s fascinating to the alterations close-up.

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Met releases 400,000 high res images

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

It seems the Met is feeling generous these days, not just in enhancing its collection but also in sharing it. As part of its new Open Access for Scholarly Content program, the museum is releasing 400,000 high resolution images that can be downloaded directly from its website and used for scholarly purposes without asking for permission or paying a fee.

In making the announcement, [Thomas Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art] said: “Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.”

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions.

To access the images, click on the collection database and either search by keyword, browse the featured artists/topics or browse by material, geographic location, era or departments. For getting lost in beautiful things, I’m partial to browsing by era and culture. Look for the OASC in a little box underneath the picture the left of the My Met link. To download the image, click on the down arrow to the right and save the image to your hard drive in the usual way. They also seem to allow hotlinking but that’s rude and unreliable in the long term so I wouldn’t do that.

Apparently some images that are still under copyright or whose status is unclear are not yet available for free use, but I haven’t encountered any in my browsing thus far. If the photograph is not free for use, it will not have the OASC icon underneath them
The museum will be increasing the number of available photographs as copyrights expire and new digital files are uploaded.

On a tangentially related (at best) note, while enjoying a random browse today I came across this arresting bronze of Roman emperor Trebonianus Gallus (reigned 251–253 A.D.). Almost the entire statue is original, a very rare survival of a complete third century freestanding bronze. Is that tiny head on that large body not the weirdest thing? And that’s an idealized portrayal, or at least the body is. He’s posed like a famous statue of Alexander the Great carved by Lysippos that inspired many a fine figure for centuries. The face, on the other hand, appears to be realistic which makes for an eye-catchingly disproportionate combination. Still, there’s no question the head and body are of a piece. The museum X-rayed the statue and found the head is original to that body.

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Met acquires monumental Le Brun portrait

Friday, May 16th, 2014

A year ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art only had a few drawings by French baroque master Charles Le Brun, a major hole in their collection since Le Brun was First Painter of King Louis XIV (the king said Le Brun was “the greatest French painter of all time”) and enormously influential for centuries after his death. The gap was filled in April 2013 when the Met purchased The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the 1647 painting by Charles Le Brun that was discovered in the Coco Chanel Suite of the Paris Ritz during renovations in 2012, for $1,885,194. That price set a new world record for a work by Le Brun.

It’s not a record anymore. The Met just broke its own record and broke it hard, acquiring the monumental portrait Everhard Jabach and His Family for an unprecedented $12.3 million. The reason the price is so high this time is that while Polyxena is an early work of a historical theme, Jabach is a group portrait painted around 1660 at the peak of Le Brun’s powers and popularity. It’s a massive work — 7.6 feet by 10.6 feet — of massive artistic and historical significance.

Jabach was one of the great personalities of his age. He was portrayed twice by Van Dyck (1636, private collection; 1641, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), by Peter Lely and possibly Sébastien Bourdon (both ca. 1650, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), and by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1688, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne). Le Brun was one of the sitter’s favorite artists and the two were united—in the words of Claude Nivelon, Le Brun’s earliest biographer—by “friendship and shared interests” (‘il était uni d’amitié et d’inclination’). The family group was one of the few pictures Jabach did not sell to the King of France, and therefore one of the few that did not enter the collection of the Louvre.

The picture is at once a portrait of family relations and of a painter’s relationship to a key patron. The assemblage of objects lying on the floor at the feet of Jabach symbolizes his cultural interests: a Bible, an open copy of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise, a compass (architecture and geometry), a porte crayon and drawn sheet (drawing), an ancient marble head (sculpture), a book (literature and poetry), and a celestial globe (astronomy). Most prominent among these objects is a bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts. She is identified by her distinctive helmet and the Medusa on her chest. Behind Jabach is the mirror in which we see Le Brun at work.

Le Brun made two copies of the portrait. This one is the first. The second was acquired by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now the Bode Museum) in Berlin in 1836 but was destroyed in May of 1945 when the Friedrichshain flak tower, where it had ironically been sent for safekeeping along with more than 400 of the museum’s most prized paintings, caught fire at least twice. This was after of Berlin had fallen, by the way, not the result of shelling or bombing. All we have left of it today is an old black and white photograph.

The primary copy was thought lost, but it turns out to have been part of the furniture of the stately home of Olantigh Towers in Kent for almost two centuries. It was brought to the UK by Henry Hope, a wealthy Boston-born, Rotterdam-based Scot who purchased the painting in 1792 from Johann Matthias von Bors, a descendant of Jabach’s. Hope installed it in his Harley Street home after fleeing the continent and the chaos of the French Revolution in 1794. It moved to Olantigh Towers in 1832 when it was bought by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax.

In 1913, Olantigh Towers was sold to one J. H. Loudon who then sold to his son, F. W. H. Loudon in 1935. The painting was just sold along with the house. No particular mention was made of it. It was rediscovered last year when experts from Christie’s were called in to assess the contents of the home. Christie’s contacted the Metropolitan Museum and negotiated the sale.

Because of the complex composition representing prominent subjects and their relationship to the artist, this portrait has been called “a French Las Meninas,” after the iconic masterpiece painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656. It’s no wonder, then, that the UK didn’t want to let it go. It’s the only Le Brun portrait in the country and in February the government’s Export Reviewing Committee placed a temporary three-month export ban on the painting, giving British museums the chance to raise the $12.3 million necessary to keep it in the country. The ban expired on May 6th with no institutions stepping up to the plate or even raising enough money to make it remotely plausible that they might be able to acquire it should the ban be extended.

And so the Met gets its prize Le Brun, doubling the number of paintings by the artist in the museum, and more than doubling the importance of their 17th century French collection. The portrait will be conserved and framed, a process that will take the rest of this year at least. It will go on display in the Met’s European Paintings Galleries in 2015. They already have the portrait’s entry uploaded to the museum website, however, and it has lots of details about the imagery and significance of the piece.

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Who was Parmigianino’s Turkish Slave?

Monday, May 12th, 2014

The only thing we know for sure is that this iconic beauty was neither Turkish nor a slave. La Schiava Turca was a misnomer applied in the 18th century by a cataloger who interpreted the lady’s headdress as a turban and the gold chain in the slashes of her right sleeve as a symbol of bondage. In fact, her headpiece is a balzo, a wire net covered in fabric and gold thread that was fashionable among Northern Italian noblewomen in the 16th century thanks to trendsetter Isabella d’Este (see her 1534-6 portrait by Titian, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Portrait of a Lady (1520-25) by Bernardino Luini, now in the National Gallery of Art). The chain is expensive gold jewelry and her indigo satin dress, gossamer silk chemise and ostrich plume fan confirm that the sitter was a woman of wealth and position.

She was painted by Francesco Girolamo Mazzola, aka Parmigianino, around 1532 or 1533 when he was in Parma working on two altarpieces for the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata. Its whereabouts for the next century and a half are unknown. It appears again in a 1675 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Leopold de’ Medici in Florence. In the 18th century Parmigianino’s lady was ceded to the Uffizi Gallery along with the rest of the Medici art holdings. In 1928 the Uffizi traded it to the National Gallery of Parma and the portrait went home for good.

Since then, it has rarely left the museum and it has never crossed the Atlantic to delight American audiences. Now for the first time La Schiava Turca is traveling to the US. It is the star of The Poetry of Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca” which runs at The Frick Collection from May 13th to July 20th and at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum from July 26th through October 5th. There are no portraits by Parmigianino in any public collection in the US and there are two in this show (the other is Portrait of a Man), so this is a unique opportunity.

Art historians have proposed a variety of identifications of the not-actually-a Turkish Slave. Candidates include Giulia Gonzaga around the time of her marriage to Vespasiano Colonna in 1526 when she was 14 years old, a member of the Cavalli family, a member of the Baiardo family whose scion Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo was a personal friend and big supporter of the artist, even bailing him out when he was arrested for breach of contract when he didn’t finish the Santa Maria della Steccata commission.

Another possibility is that she’s not a specific person but a depiction of an ideal figure, perhaps an allegory of love or poetry. The medallion in the center of her balzo could be a poetry reference. It’s an image of Pegasus, the winged mythological horse who created the Hippocrene spring, source of poetic inspiration. The connection between poetry and Pegasus was well-established in 16th century Italy. The prominent poet Pietro Bembo, a contemporary of Parmigianino’s, used Pegasus as his personal symbol.

She’s not the usual Renaissance allegory or muse of poetry, however. From the exhibition press release (pdf):

Her active pose — with her face turned toward the left and her body to the right — is common in depictions of men of the time, but not women. Also, her direct gaze and lively expression stand out when compared to the reserved, aloof expressions often seen in Renaissance portraits of women, in which it was considered appropriate to retain a dignified modesty. Finally, the Pegasus ornament on her headdress is an accessory borrowed from men’s fashion: it is likely a hat badge, an adornment worn almost exclusively by Renaissance men that bears a personal, usually humanist, emblem. With her frank expression, typically “masculine” pose, and an accessory appropriated from male fashion, it seems reasonable to believe that the Schiava Turca was intended to be seen not so much as the passive recipient of male poetic dedication, but to be regarded as a poet herself. After all, she wears on her head — the source of intellect and creativity — an emblem of Pegasus, the symbol of poetic inspiration.

Exhibition guest curator and Columbia University Art History lecturer Aimee Ng discovered another clue while researching the portrait. Parmigianino was known to make many preparatory drawings and studies for his paintings. There are two red chalk head drawings in Paris that art historians believe were studies for the Schiava Turca. Ng’s research found a third drawing in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection at Chatsworth, previously unconnected to any specific painting, that shares significant commonalities with La Schiava Turca and makes the poet image even more explicit.

The pen-and-ink drawing, which had not previously been linked to any specific project, shares the bust-length format of the Schiava Turca (although the woman in the drawing poses with her head facing in the same direction as her body). In the drawing, the woman wears a balzo-like headdress decorated with a wreath of laurel leaves. In the classical tradition, laurel leaves are used to crown accomplished poets. As it shows the artist experimenting with the standard iconography of poetry, the drawing may record an early idea for the Schiava Turca. In the end, Parmigianino’s use of an ornamental badge of Pegasus to mark the Schiava Turca as a poet is a more subtle (indeed, more poetic) solution.

So if she’s a poet rather than an allegory of poetry, which poet is she? Ng proposes one possible candidate: Veronica Gambara, a poet whose works while unpublished were widely circulated in manuscript form by 1530. She was also the ruler of the city of Correggio from the death of her husband in 1518 until her death in 1550, and her good friend Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio because that’s where he was born, was Parmigianino’s former teacher. She traveled to Parma and lived in Bologna when Parmigianino lived there after the Sack of Rome. Pietro Bembo of Pegasus fame was Gambara’s mentor; they had corresponded since she was a teenager.

If it is Gambara, it’s still a highly idealized portrayal. She was born in 1485, so she would have been in her late 40s when Parmigianino painted the portrait. Rolling back the years, or even decades, was a common practice for portraits of nobility (the Titian portrait of Isabella d’Este was painted when she was over 60), so her age doesn’t exclude her.

Aimee Ng will be giving a lecture at The Frick about the Schiava Turca on Wednesday, May 14th, at 6:00 PM. If you can’t make it to New York on time, you can attend virtually here.

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Norton Simon Museum to return Bhima to Cambodia

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Almost exactly one year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return a pair of 10th century statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Cambodian archaeological site of Koh Ker in the early 1970s. Seven months later, Sotheby’s, after two years of fractious negotiations and under pressure from the US Attorney, agreed to return a much larger 10th century statue of the warrior Duryodhana that was also looted from Koh Ker in the early 70s. Now, five months after that, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has agreed to return their own Koh Ker loot: a 500-pound sandstone statue of the hero Bhima, Duryodhana’s cousin and opponent in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

The museum purchased Bhima in 1976 from New York art dealer William Wolff. It has been on display since then, labeled “Temple Wrestler.” Cambodia has had more than enough problems to deal with at home since the brutal civil war that claimed the statues of Koh Ker as victims, so it didn’t begin to pursue its stolen cultural patrimony until the past few years.

The museum has previously said that Cambodian representatives had seen the statue on display in California and had not raised any objections. In a statement on Tuesday the Norton Simon said it continues to have “a good-faith disagreement” with Cambodia over ownership of the Bhima, but after sending representatives to Phnom Penh in March to meet with government officials, it has “worked directly with Cambodia to come up with a mutually acceptable solution,” and agreed to give it back as a gift.

In 2007, the pedestals of the Kneeling Attendants and the feet of both Duryodhana and Bhima were discovered in the Prasat Chen temple of the Koh Ker complex by conservators from the German Apsara Conservation Project. Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (the French School of Asian Studies) made a study of the pedestals and feet, virtually matching them up to photographs of the statues. They fit like a glove, and indeed you can clearly see the chisel marks looters left on the ankles, knees and feet of these otherwise perfectly preserved 1000-year-old statues.

All four of these statues — the attendants, Bhima and Duryodhana — were part of a group that stood inside the western gopura, one of two monumental towers at opposite entrances to the Prasat Chen temple. The tableau depicted a famous scene from the Mahabharata wherein Bhima duels with Duryodhana under the watchful gaze of seven kneeling and seated attendants. Koh Ker, the new capital of the Khmer Empire under King Jayavarman IV, was founded in 928 A.D., and a whole new style of sculpture was conceived there. The statues of Bhima and Duryodhana were revolutionary for their time, the first freestanding, dynamic figures in Khmer art which had previously been characterized by bas reliefs and static pieces.

Here’s a wonderful computer recreation by the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient of the western gopura and its sculptures:

In an unusual, hell-freezes-over move, Christie’s has bought another one of the attendants from this statue group to return it to Cambodia. The auction house had sold it twice, once in 2000 and then again to an anonymous collector in 2009. Earlier this year, after an internal investigation of a five-year-old sale that apparently determined that the sculpture had been looted from Koh Ker decades earlier, Christie’s contacted the buyer and arranged to buy the statue back. Christie’s will now foot the bill to ship the piece to Cambodia.

That leaves two known statues Cambodian experts believe were looted from Koh Ker still in the United States, one at the Denver Art Museum and one at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Those museums are still in the denial phase right now, but last year so was the Met, the Norton Simon, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Now Christie’s is doing its own investigations and buying looted artifacts back from the buyers (who would ever have seen that coming?), so the arc of this particular history appears to be bending rather strongly towards justice.

[Cambodia's secretary of state] Mr. Chan Tani said that recovering all the statues from the Prasat Chen temple is a national priority. The goal is to reattach the statues to their pedestals, which were left behind by the looters, and place them all together in a special display area in the national museum.

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Unique early 5th c. hoard found in Limburg

Monday, May 5th, 2014

A unique hoard buried in the early 5th century in a field in modern-day Echt, in the Netherlands’ southern Limburg province, has been excavated by archaeologists from VU University Amsterdam. The first glimmers of it appeared in 1990, when a farmer working his field found two gold coins. He inadvertently dropped one of them and although he searched frantically, he couldn’t find it again. Twenty-four years later in early 2014, the farmer and his nephew returned to the find site armed with a metal detector. They discovered five more gold coins and alerted the authorities.

University archaeologists excavated the rest of the hoard, getting a rare opportunity to examine the full archaeological context of a late Roman gold treasure. In fact, this is the first hoard from this period of Netherlands history to be thoroughly documented by archaeologists. The hoard is composed of one gold ring, one silver ingot, nine fragments cut from at least three large silverware plates and 12 gold coins, the most recent of which date to the reign of Emperor Constantine III (407-411 A.D.). They are in mint condition, which suggests the hoard was buried soon after 411 since the coins never had the time to get worn by circulation.

The pieces of silver tableware are what is known as hacksilver, artifacts made of precious metals that were cut up to be used as currency. One edge fragment testifies to what high level tableware it came from. It has a beaded rim and is engraved with a gilded horse and rider. The rider holds aloft a spear and the horse appears to be rearing over a lion, so archaeologists believe it was part of a larger hunting scene. Extrapolating from the curve of the outer edge of the fragment, the dish it came from would have been around 28 inches in diameter and weighed nearly five pounds. This kind of tableware was often used as diplomatic gifts to client chieftains or local dignitaries with whom Rome wished to curry favor, see the Traprain Law Hoard from East Lothian, Scotland for a famous example.

This is the first treasure found in the Netherlands to have both gold coins and hacksilver. The latter testifies to the political and economic upheaval of the time when the hoard was buried. The reason Rome was sending out elaborately decorated, expensive tableware to the far reaches of the empire was to buy protection of the borders. A Germanic war leader would get paid in a gilded silver plate more than two feet wide, then he would cut it up for its silver value and either keep it or distribute among his soldiers just like they would any other currency.

The date of this hoard was a particularly dangerous time in the area. Many historians point to the year 406, the year of the Battle of Mainz, as the final nail in the coffin of Roman control of the Rhineland. Germanic tribes, among them the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, defeated the Franks and crossed the border of the Rhine into Gaul. Constantine III may not have been able to keep the migrating tribes out of Roman territory, but he did make some effort. Historian at the time record him distributing gold to Germanic chieftains so they would defend the Rhine border in absence of army regulars. A study of gold finds in the Netherlands support the contention, as there is a remarkable concentration of gold from the reign of Constantine III.

The owner of the Echt hoard may have been the recipient of one of these pay-offs. Constatine III was defeated in battle and executed by his successor, Constantius, in 411. In the subsequent crisis, the hoard owner may have felt the need to bury the shiny new coins and hacked up fancy silverware the former emperor had given him. He seems to have unloaded it on the gods instead.
 
Thanks to the in-context excavation, we know that the shallow pit in which the treasure was buried is the only place in the area where late Roman artifacts have been found. Other archaeological material has been found in neighboring fields, but not Roman pieces from the early 5th century. This indicates there was no settlement or human habitation of the area during that period. Instead, it seems the treasure was deliberately buried in this out-of-the way spot, a marshy, uninhabited lowland perfectly suited for a ritual burial. Had the hoard been buried with the intent of retrieval, it would have been found near a settlement some place where it could rediscovered with relative ease.

The hoard is now on display in the From Neanderthal to City Dwellers gallery of the Limburgs Museum in Venlo.

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Van Dyck self-portrait acquired by National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

In December of 2009, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s last self-portrait sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking £8,329,250 ($13,521,704) to collector Alfred Bader and art dealer Philip Mould. Painted in England by the artist shortly before his death in 1641, the portrait is considered one of the finest he ever made and it is almost certainly the only self-portrait likely to come up for public sale in our lifetimes. Before it was sold in 2009, the last time it was on the market was 1712. Even though van Dyck worked for 10 years in England, becoming the pre-eminent court painter and receiving a knighthood from his patron King Charles I, there were no Van Dyck self-portraits in a British public collection.

Thanks to a massive fundraising effort and the contributions of people from all over the world, the National Portrait Gallery has now broken the streak and acquired the 1641 self-portrait. It took a lot of doing. When the portrait came up for sale in 2009, the NPG did not have the funds to join in the raucous bidding that established the new record for a Van Dyck painting. In 2010, Bader and Mould offered the work to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate for £9.5 million ($16,000,000). The museums put their heads together and tried to find a way to save the masterpiece for the nation, but even with a generous grant from the Art Fund, the total was far out of reach. None of the other possible grant sources were able to contribute, and with the economy still so sluggish, the NPG and Tate didn’t think a public fundraising appeal would be able to generate the millions of pounds necessary.

They would get one last crack at the apple. In 2013, Bader and Mould arranged a private sale of the portrait to mining and gaming billionaire, financier and art collector James Stunt, son-in-law of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, for £12.5 million ($21,000,000). Stunt is British but for much of the year he and his wife live in the insanely huge Los Angeles mansion that once belonged to Aaron Spelling, so he had to apply for an export license to take the portrait to the US. Recognizing the unique importance of the self-portrait, the UK put a three-month export ban on it to give British institutions the chance to prove they could raise the money to buy it back for the nation.

This time the National Portrait Gallery launched a nation-wide fundraising appeal with the immediate goal of raising enough money by the time the export ban was set to expire in mid-February to buy them a little more time. Seeded with a £500,000 ($843,700) grant from the Art Fund and £700,000 ($1,180,000) from the NPG’s acquisition budget, the appeal took off. By the end of January, the effort had raised an impressive £3.2 million ($5,400,000), enough to prove they had a real fighting chance of raising the full sum if given enough time, and so the export ban was extended another five months.

In March, seeing the passionate involvement of the public in the ultimate disposition of the painting, Stunt decided to withdraw his export license application. The painting was then offered to the National Portrait Gallery for £10 million ($16,874,000), a generous boost to the fundraising effort.

“When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn’t expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate,” said Stunt, who had planned to hang the portrait in his Los Angeles home.

He added that he had “carefully reconsidered” his position and hoped that his withdrawal, together with the reduced price, would see the appeal succeed.

His hope was not in vain. On May 1st, the National Portrait Gallery announced that the appeal had succeeded. Thanks to £1.44 million ($2,430,000) in donations from more than 10,000 individuals, plus £1.2 million ($2,025,000) donated by two private trusts and the coup de grâce, a £6,343,500 ($10,704,000) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Van Dyck self-portrait was saved for the nation. They also raised an additional £343,000 ($580,000) to fund a national tour of the painting.

The portrait, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, will remain there until August 31st. It will then be removed from public view while conservators assess its condition and experts research its history. Starting in January of 2015, the portrait will tour museums and galleries around the UK for three years.

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Louvre and Prado Mona Lisas as stereoscopic image

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Two years ago, the Prado Museum in Madrid announced that a painting long thought to be a relatively unremarkable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was actually painted contemporaneously with the original, likely by a student following the master as he drew and painted the portrait. Infrared reflectography found that the 18th century black overpaint obscured a hilly background almost the same as the original. When the black overpaint and varnish were removed from the Prado’s copy, further infrared and X-ray analysis found underdrawings and alterations from the tracing and all the way through the upper paint levels that matched those in 2004 scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa. That means from the initial sketches to the changes and corrections as painting progressed, the Prado copy followed along at each stage.

That’s not to say they’re identical, even underneath the cracked and yellowed varnish that darkens and discolors the original. Two German researchers studied both paintings, selecting landmark points (like the tip of her nose, say, or a particular feature in the mountains) and mapping the path from the landmarks to the observer’s sight line. These trajectories tracked perspective changes between the two versions.

They found that the background of the Prado painting, while virtually identical in shape, is 10% more zoomed in than the Louvre version’s. The expansion doesn’t follow a perspectival pattern you’d expect if the landscape were painted from life, which suggests the mountains in the background and the loggia right behind her were painted from a flat studio backdrop. The trajectories illustrated a number of perspective changes in the painting of the figure, particularly dense in Mona Lisa’s hands and head.

With the comparative perspective data, the researchers were able to calculate the positions of the canvases relative to the sitter and then they made a model of Leonardo’s studio during the painting of the Mona Lisa with Playmobil minifigs.

The original (labeled 1st) is further back and to the right of the Prado copy, and the horizontal distance between the versions is about 69.3 millimeters. The average distance between the eyes of Italian males is 64.1mm, a statistically insignificant difference which suggested to the researchers the possibility that the two paintings might have been deliberately positioned to be a stereoscopic pair which when viewed together give the impression of three dimensions

Carbon points out that Da Vinci “intensively worked on the 3D issue.” In addition, in inventory lists there were hints of the existence of two “Mona Lisa” paintings on his property at the same time, and that he owned colored spectacles, Carbon said.

This evidence “might indicate that he did not only [think] about the 3D issue theoretically but in a very practical sense in terms of experiments,” Carbon added. Also, when looking at the original colors of the two paintings the only real difference was in the sleeves, in which they are reddish in one version and greenish in the other. “This could be a hint to Leonardo’s approach to look at the two La Giocondas through red-green (red-cyan) spectacles,” he said, similar to those one might don to watch a 3D movie.

That’s a lot of speculation and there are significant counterpoints refuting this hypothesis. The hands work as a stereoscopic pair because the trajectory differences are horizontal. Most of the trajectories on the upper portion of Mona Lisa’s body like her face and hair have a vertical orientation. Still, Leonardo did write about binocular vision and depth perception, so it’s possible he had some idea there could be a dimensional payoff in the positioning of the two canvases.

You can read the whole paper here (pdf) to get the fully fleshed out argument with math and everything. It could all be pure imagination and it would be worth it for the minifig studio alone, as far as I’m concerned.

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